by Tim Hodson
There is a new addition to that small genre of mystery novels set in state capitols and involving legislatures. Fair, Balanced …and Dead is the first novel by Steve Swatt, a long-time political reporter, now retired, for a Sacramento television station. Swatt is following the path of John Feinstein (Running Mates) and Tony Hillerman (The Fly on the Wall) both of whom were political reporters whose early novels featured political reporters investigating murders. In Swatt’s case, of course, the hero is a TV reporter confronting both deadly political games and a news industry increasingly disinterested and disdainful of political coverage.
A veteran U.S. Senator has died and the Republican Governor of California must select a replacement. Various candidates emerge but the strongest are Johnny Callahan, the young charismatic Speaker of the state Assembly, whose conservatism is tempered by pragmatism and an acute awareness of being a Republican in a Democratic majority state, and Harold Barnes, an older legislator who is the champion of the right.
Allegations of a sex scandal involving the Speaker surface and TV reporter Jack Summerland is forced by a ratings-driven station to report the story. The story proves to be untrue, embarrassing Summerland but allowing Callahan to appear the aggrieved victim. More damaging stories follow leading Summerland to investigate the allegations, their source and a body found floating in the American River. Dirty tricks by Barnes? Machiavellian tactics by the Speaker’s staff? Ancient grudges? The work of a group of Southern California millionaires anxious to launch Callahan on a path to the White House?
Swatt captures the incestuous co-dependence of the press and politicians:
The first thing Jack noticed were a dozen well-scrubbed six year olds in a greeting line. A few fidgeted as their teacher warned, ‘All right, children. Big smiles.’ California’s ambitious lieutenant governor, Gardner Tyson, invited reporters to join him on a tour of a successful suburban Sacramento charter school. Jack had no illusions about the story. He was being used and he knew it. It was part of the symbiotic relationship between elected officials and the media. Each need each other.
Fair, Balanced …and Dead is a good, if not great, read with enough twists, red herrings, and dead bodies to satisfy. Swatt captures the atmosphere of capitol politics and peppers the book with insider descriptions of the mechanics and dynamics of television news, much like Hillerman did with print reporting in The Fly on the Wall.
Swatt falters somewhat with Summerland’s frequent and often wordy laments about the decline of television news, the dominance of twenty-something producers who know everything about marketing and nothing about journalism or politics, and the pressures of rating sweeps. Some of the Sacramento atmosphere is also a bit too parochial (guessing the real identities of Swatt’s fictional Sacramento newscasters and reporters is fun for locals but probably distracting for anyone else), but Swatt does capture the ambience of not only Sacramento but most state capitols.Guest author Tim Hodson is director of California State University Sacramento's Center for California Studies.